While Kevin McCarthy’s ouster as the Speaker of the House in the U.S. House of Representatives was unprecedented, it was not totally unexpected.
Following McCarthy’s election as Speaker after a contentious and chaotic fifteen round of votes in the House in January of this year, the only questions were how soon his speakership would end and how it would end. The end was very soon, as McCarthy only served for 269 days. The how it would end was predictable, based on McCarthy’s desperation-driven move in his bid to be the Speaker, to secure votes from a group of very conservative Republican House members.
To secure those votes, Mc Carthy agreed to changes in the House internal operating rules. One of the changes allows any House member to make a motion at any time for a roll call vote to remove the Speaker.
This rule change set up a scenario comparable to a hunter waiting patiently for just the right opportunity to ambush a prey. In this case, the prey was Kevin McCarthy, and the hunter was fellow Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz.
Gaetz has had a long-term antagonistic relationship with McCarthy and never wanted McCarthy as Speaker. He argued that McCarthy was untrustworthy. He also argued McCarthy was not a true conservative, but one who overpromised and underdelivered on his support for conservative public policy positions, especially on federal budget and government spending matters.
In Gaetz’s view, two McCarthy actions after being elected Speaker affirmed his negative perceptions about McCarthy. The first was McCarthy negotiating and reaching agreement with the Democratic controlled Senate and Democratic President Biden on a compromise to increase the federal debt ceiling limit. The second was McCarthy’s decision to bring forth a continuing budget resolution to avoid a government shutdown. This stopgap measure ultimately passed in the House but only with bipartisan support from Democratic House members.
After his decision to move forward on a continuing budget resolution motion, McCarthy responded to criticism of his actions in a succinct tweet, “Bring it on.” Gaetz replied, “I just did.”
Gaetz did so using one of the rule changes that McCarthy had agreed to previously. Gaetz introduced a motion in late September to remove McCarthy as the Speaker. A small bloc of very conservative Republican House members, along with all the Democratic House members present and voting, supported Gaetz’s motion. The result was McCarthy narrowly losing in his attempt to remain as Speaker.
Kevin McCarthy is not the only loser in this exercise of political musical chairs. The entire House of Representatives is a loser, as is the American public. Relatively few Americans understand the often complicated and always highly political internal affairs in Congress. Even fewer care about them. Polling consistently reports that huge numbers of Americans already view Congress as being dysfunctional and ineffective on addressing a wide range of critical domestic policy and foreign policy issues.
That said, there is one immediate way Congress can demonstrate they are willing and able to conduct their internal affairs with a higher level of stability and continuity.
Before elections are held for McCarthy’s successor and for future Speakers, leaders of the House Republican Caucus and leaders of the House Democratic Caucus must make it a top priority to change the rule on how to remove a speaker. The change must make it more difficult (but not impossible) to accomplish that outcome when absolutely necessary.
This rule change is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It is a commonsense change for whichever party has a House majority. Without this rule change, no Speaker will be able to be effective with the constant threat of one House member launching and orchestrating a future McCarthy-like coup.
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters.